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A review of "Clownhouse" (1989)

The short bit for people who don't like to read reviews:

If you're looking for a straight-forward, moody, no-frills horror movie featuring kids in peril, then you could do a hell of a lot worse than Clownhouse.  Despite its controversial reputation, it remains an effective and tight little thriller that works well in spite of (or maybe because of) its reliance on cliches and easy scares.  It's the perfect horror movie for preteens who are trying to sneak in an R-rated movie, and as long as you can ignore the gratuitous underwear scenes, cheap music, and abominable real-world tragedy behind the scenes, you may yet have a good time with it.

My Rating:  3.5 / 5

The longer bits for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Introduce Things and Side-Step a Notorious Black Mark in Film History

Victor Silva's directorial debut has a reputation.  Most likely, you know about it already.  Chances are the type of people who'd come to my site searching for '80s horror movies are well-versed in Clownhouse and its seedy history already, so I probably don't need to explain any further.

If you're not aware, though... look it up.  Or don't, actually.  I'm specifically not going to talk about it here because that's not the point of this review.  There's merit in the film beyond the tragic events that surround it, and just as seeing Jason Voorhees / Kane Hodder without the mask on can take away from the appeal of a Friday the 13th movie, knowing about the real-world events of Clownhouse could ruin your ability to enjoy any part of it.

Not to say that we shouldn't pretend it didn't happen - just that the movie can still be good.  Exactly the same way that Chinatown is a classic even though Roman Polanski is a steaming pile of shit.  If anything, the Clownhouse situation can be more sympathetic since somebody at least went to jail.  (By the way, did I ever mention my burning hatred of Polanski?  A millionaire anally rapes a teenage girl and gets to go on a forty year vacation and meanwhile we just argue about whether or not his crime "still counts."  Politics, huh?  What can you do.)


The point is that although Clownhouse is not necessarily an obscure movie, it is certainly an under-appreciated one.  It's one of the better examples of a horror subgenre that doesn't really get made much anymore and doesn't have a name, as far as I'm aware.  I guess we can call it Clothed Helpless Adolescent Suburban Protagonist (CHASP)?

CHASP horror has a few simple hallmarks.  First and foremost, you have realistic kid protagonists. They're kinda dumb (because they're young), they talk like actual kids, they swear a lot without really understanding how you're supposed to swear, they're needlessly destructive and violent to each other, and they're horrible cowards.

Second, you establish them as coming from a gentrified, bland, middle-class background.  Third, you get those kids isolated in a nightmarish situation (like a haunted house).  Fourth, you keep them "innocent" - they might have a girlfriend / boyfriend, but they aren't drug-addicted hornballs having sex in the woods or something.  They're just ordinary kids being kids who come face to face with evil.

For other CHASP movies, check out The Gate, Phantasm, and to some extent, Fright Night.  (That one fudges rule #4 a little bit, but it's got the right tone.)

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Movie's Plot

This is a movie about three brothers.  In order from youngest to oldest: Casey, Geoffrey, and Randy (Sam Rockwell, in his film debut).  Casey is kind of a mess - he's just starting to go through puberty and is clearly having an awkward time with the transition.  Randy is a bully who deep down loves Casey, but enjoys tormenting him the way that only older brothers can.  Geoffrey is a level-headed mediator between the two.

When the movie opens, we get a few glimpses into Casey's irrational fear of clowns.  (Also a few glimpses of him and his brothers in their underwear, which is guaranteed to make you feel uncomfortable.  I promise that the movie gets better.  Maybe look at your iPad or something for the first 8 minutes or so - once they put clothes on, they don't come back off.  And yes, I'm aware that technically this violates the "C" in "CHASP," but it's supposed to be innocent in context.)

After waking up from a terrible nightmare involving a clown - which caused him to wet his bed - Casey suffers through Randy's merciless taunting for a few hours.  Naturally, after you piss yourself in terror at the thought of a clown, the logical next step is to go to meet one in person, so the brothers end up spending the evening at a circus.  Cheezo, the lead clown, tries to get Casey to volunteer for an act, but he refuses and instead runs out of the circus tent.

Geoffrey goes to comfort him while Randy thinks of new and not-really-clever ways to make fun of him.  They go home, bickering and trying to think of a more pleasant way to enjoy the evening.

Meanwhile, back at the circus, we get a few glimpses of three psychotic Lunatics who have just escaped a mental institution.  They sneak into the clowns' dressing room / area (?) after the show and kill them, then assume their identities.

Sensing that there is a little boy somewhere in town who is afraid of clowns, Lunatic Cheezo (as he is credited) leads his two associates, Lunatic Dippo and Lunatic Bippo, on a quest to hunt down Casey and terrorize him.  Thus begins the rest of the movie.

All of this is basically an overly long way of saying that this is a movie about three Lunatic Clowns who stalk and horrify three boys.

There's really no more depth to it than that.  It's as simple and utilitarian a plot as you can get.

The great thing about the movie, though, is that the Lunatics have a good sense of building up their terror.  It's like they studied the finer art of Creepiness; they only get in a few kills, but they make sure to take their time and milk as much suspense out of them as possible.

In fact, for the first fifty minutes or so of the movie, the boys don't even know for sure that they're being stalked.  Casey suspects that something's amiss, as he keeps catching a glimpse of Cheezo out of the corner of his eye.  But he doesn't get actual proof of his fears until the Lunatics have already gotten inside his house and cut the power.

Clownhouse is at its best when the Lunatics are just hanging out and being creepy.  The good news is that this makes up maybe a solid third of the movie's run-time, so there's ample scares and atmosphere.  There's one particularly good sequence where Randy is checking on a fuse and you see that Cheezo is staring at him from behind a rack of clothes.  It's a great image.  It's a bit predictable - because of course there's a horrible scary thing hiding behind you in the closet - but it works.

The Bit Wherein I Discuss Cliches and Thematic Relevance

This is a movie about two things: clowns and fear.  (I guess it's also about a house.  Maybe it's about three things.)

The clowns are a cliche.  Clown phobias are nothing new and the use of clowns as a horror image is borderline lazy.  But cliches are an odd thing.  At first they start out as some brilliant new concept. (Blair Witch Project is "found footage" you guys!  Isn't that crazy?!)  Then they become so repetitive that you start to feel nauseated.  (Paranormal Activity 5: Yes, We Still Totally Found This VCR Tape For Real.)  At some point they hit a saturation point where they anncoulter and you hate them.

But then a miracle happens.  The cliche becomes its own thing, a new flavor that comes with its own set of standards by which you measure its success or failure.  You no longer ask if Fortnight of the Dead is a good horror movie, but if it is a good zombie movie.

So it is with psycho clowns.  By this metric, Clownhouse is a strong entry, with some of the best psycho clowns in movie history.

I mentioned in the plot summary that the Lunatics excel at being creepy.  The actors are terrific at evoking a sense of otherworldliness that most psycho clowns don't get across.  The Lunatics don't giggle hysterically or brandish weapons or otherwise try to ham it up.  They just dress like clowns, smile, and quietly murder you.  There are times when you need to stop and savor the nuanced performance that a bit player can put into a low-budget bit of schlock, and this is one of them.

Going back to my parallel structure introduction to this bit - the fear is a theme.  The film tries to impress upon us a moral about fear and learning to conquer it.  Casey opens the story in a state of panic and terror, but closes out with a righteous sense of justice and courage.  Great arc, right?

Here I feel is where one of the movie's main weaknesses lies.  Or rather, one of its main oddities.

See, the point of most horror movies is that they want you to be afraid.  I'll leave it to psychologists and sociologists to fully explain why we like this - maybe it's just the exhilaration of fear or maybe it's the relief of knowing that other people are afraid, too.  But whatever the reason, Clownhouse's message is that we shouldn't be afraid.

It sets up a world where fear is a thing that must be destroyed in order to become a whole human being.  Casey is mercilessly taunted for his fears at the beginning of the movie ("The whole town saw that you're a coward!") and the ending can only be resolved if he manages to just suck it up and fight those evil psycho clowns already.  The movie even ends with the following quote:

I understand what they were going for, because overcoming a fear is a great idea for a character arc... but as a general message it kind of falls apart.  Isn't it a good thing that we're afraid of psycho clowns?  Wouldn't our fear of psycho clowns keep us safe?  And why is it so unreasonable for an 11 year-old kid to be terrified when three psycho clowns break into his house and try to kill him?  Are we saying that it would be the kid's own fault if he didn't summon the courage to fight back?

It seems an odd choice for a movie like this to try to give us a message in the end.  You know what, Clownhouse?  You gave us some terrifying psycho clowns and you gave us a house.  I think you've delivered.  Let's just call it even right there.

The Bit Wherein I Conclude Things

CHASP horror seems to be a dying subgenre these days.  I'm not sure why the appeal is fading.  Do kids not watch R-rated movies anymore?

There's stuff out there like The Hole, which was an okay movie, but it had to cut out all the swearing and blood in order to maintain a PG-13 rating.  The end result feels strangely artificial.  Classic CHASP horror always felt like an extended episode of Tales From the Crypt that a kid could appreciate.  Modern day CHASP horror feels like a third-rate Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode: it's meant for kids, and they may even get into it, but it's no substitute for the real thing.

Horror for kids is a tricky feat to pull off.  People don't have enough respect for children's intelligence and often condescend by making fluffy pablum.  So you don't want to go The Hole route and remove all your movie's teeth.  But then again, you're not in the business of traumatizing children. (See also: the fact that I'm a 30 year old man who still stays up at night for fear that Freddy Krueger will gut him.)  CHASP horror is the perfect middle ground.  So, I guess what I'm saying is that if you have kids, you should show them Clownhouse.

Um.  Don't quote me on that.

Clownhouse is technically available on DVD, but since you'll probably have to pay an exorbitant fee for a used copy, I'll recommend that you check out the Youtube feed where I saw it instead.

Plan yourself a double feature with this and The Gate and you'll be in for a fine nostalgic evening.  Maybe watch this one first, though.